james debate
james debate

Sunday 25 February 2018

Directed by Duncan Jones
Written by Duncan Jones
Produced by Stuart Fenegan
Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux
Studio Netflix
Running time 126 minutes

mute duncan jones alexander skarsgard paul rudd justin theroux netflix 2018

Duncan Jones became Hollywood's new golden boy almost overnight. His first two films, Source Code and Moon were critically acclaimed and commercial sleeper hits. Many in the industry had quickly declared him as the next big thing, a saviour for intelligent science fiction.

Both films were quite different, but equally impressive demonstrations of how good filmmaking can surpass the sum of its parts. Source Code in particular is my go-to example for how a seemingly daft story can be elevated into something great by a talented storyteller. A brief detour into mindless commercial blockbusters with Warcraft proved to be ill suited to Jones’ talents, and so with his latest film Mute ostensibly representing a return to his roots, many had hoped that it might also mark a return to greatness.

This film represents a big moment for Netflix too, whose ventures into original film production have so far failed to match the excellent standard by their television team, or indeed the more celebrated cinematic efforts of their peers at Amazon. With some 100 original films produced over the past few years, only Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories, and Beasts of No Nation received anything like critical praise, and even then very little mainstream attention. Conversely with prominent recent flops Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox fresh in the mind, there is an awful lot of expectation riding on Mute; a much hyped comeback from an acclaimed director that had been seen as something of a coup for Netflix when announced as an exclusive.

Unfortunately Mute will neither reinvigorate Jones’ career, nor do much to raise the profile of Netflix’s film division.

The premise of Mute is bizarre to try and type out. Alexander Skarsgard plays Leo, a mute Amish man living in a grimy, futuristic Berlin. He goes searching for his missing girlfriend, a mission that finds him becoming intertwined with Paul Rudd’s Cactus Bill and Justin Theroux’s Duck Teddington, two American surgeons gone AWOL, both fairly unpleasant low-life type characters. It’s essentially a sci-fi neo-noir film, which takes a very generous amount of inspiration from the likes of Blade Runner, as well as the dystopic fantasyscapes of Jones’ father, David Bowie.

These influences provide a rich source of material from which to draw inspiration, yet Mute falls far short of that level. It’s clear early on what the problem is: Mute has a very bad screenplay. The dialogue is atrocious, the pacing is a mess. There's little attempt to consider in any detail the premises put forward, such as the difficulties of an amish person living in such technologically dependent times. There's far too little time spent developing the character moments and relationships that underpin the whole movie. The protagonist is uninteresting and underdeveloped, the worldbuilding half-baked and unoriginal, and quite frankly there's not enough here to make the viewer care about what's happening.

For some inexplicable reason a significant portion of the film is spent following the two aforementiond shady surgeons, who are tonally all over the place. The film has a particularly weird subplot involving Duck’s paedophilic tendencies, which adds absolutely nothing to the story, and somehow is often played for incredibly poor-taste laughs. That's not to say that sketchy, unpleasant characters can't make for an interesting movie focus, or even generate some very black comedy. Films like Fargo have pulled off a similar trick with aplomb. It requires a deft touch and well-balanced tone, but unfortunately Jones' script doesn't come even close to what better writers like the Coen Brothers have managed.

To its credit, the film is visually very striking, and occasional directorial flourishes in key scenes remind us of the storytelling of which Jones is capable. The cast is strong and they make a go of the poorly written characters they have been given. None of that comes close to making up for the film’s flaws.  

Unfortunately, Mute will go down as another Netflix flop, and a setback for what used to be among the most promising careers in Hollywood. There's a clear pattern developing here. Jones did not write Moon or Source Code, both were critically acclaimed. He wrote Warcraft and Mute, both have been panned. Mr Jones, please stop writing your own scripts.

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